Voter registration campaign hits wall

Voter Participation Center will not conduct second mailing in Kootenai County

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Pat Raffee intended to sum up the dispute in two simple sentences.

“They (the Voter Participation Center) sent out a mailing that wasn’t done well and upset a lot of people here,” Raffee, Kootenai County’s deputy clerk, said Tuesday. “We asked them not to send a second mailing and they agreed.

“We’re happy, they’re happy, and that’s the end of it.”

But Raffee was half right.

Even if the county is pleased that VPC — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that attempts to raise voter registration throughout the United States — may not mail any registration forms to local residents, the Washington, D.C., group took issue with the county’s view of the situation.

“Our lawyer did speak with the (Kootenai) county clerk,” said Jim Popkin, a spokesperson for the VPC, “and she (the attorney) told the clerk that VPC had previously decided that it would not do a second round of mailings in Idaho.

“That earlier decision had nothing to do with the call with the county clerk, or any criticism of the VPC mail program in Idaho.”

This back-and-forth exchange began with a mailing intended to boost voter registration in Idaho, which is a new state for VPC campaigns.

County Clerk Jim Brannon promptly sent out a press release that said: “A group calling themselves the Voter Participation Center has mailed pre-completed voter registration forms to relatives of long-deceased former county residents or to relatives of people who have never been Idaho residents.

“Citizens are concerned that they or their loved ones are part of a scam geared toward voter fraud.”

A similar VPC mailing to California residents recently made headlines in that state, and prompted California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to issue a statement.

“It is important that organizations conducting voter registration drives through the mail ensure that their voter data is up-to-date and accurate. Causing confusion right before an election is wrong,” stated a press release issued by Padilla’s office.

Brannon’s press release indicated that, although the mailings were legal, the county had asked VPC to scrap a second mailing, and the group indicated it would comply.

But that’s not how they’re viewing it in D.C.

A release from VPC President Page Gardner stated: “To provide transparency, all our forms clearly state that they come from the Voter Participation Center, a non-governmental organization.

“We make it simple to check your registration status online, and to be removed from our mailing list if we’ve sent you mail in error.”

Carrie Phillips, county election manager, told The Press her office had received at least 80 complaints from residents about the VPC mailing.

VPC’s counterpoint: “We don’t have complaint or opt-out figures by county just yet. But, statewide in Idaho, we are aware of only 59 'inquiries' or complaints.

“That is much less than 1 percent of the total mailed, or a complaint rate of .087 percent.”

VPC said although the campaign is new to Idaho, it has "...received 5,300 registration returns in this election season, meaning that at least 5,300 Idaho citizens have returned our voter registration applications to election officials and appear to be on their way to registration.”

Statistics provided by VPC suggest there are 265,000 voting-eligible millennials, unmarried women, African-Americans and Latinos who are not registered to vote in Idaho.

As for the charge that, at least in Kootenai County, the VPC had bothered many residents by reaching relatives of dead citizens, Gardner said: “Unfortunately, no state makes available a list of individuals who are unregistered to vote. As a result, VPC must use commercially available residential databases and match them to the state’s voter file to determine who is unregistered and otherwise eligible.

“Despite our best efforts, sometimes mail goes to the wrong recipient. When that happens, VPC moves quickly to correct it.”

Raffee was critical of VPC’s explanation of how an incorrect name — not to mention someone who is dead — might appear on a mailing list.

“This mailing might be legal, but it was done badly,” she said. “I’ve talked to someone at the Secretary of State’s office and was told that they would make an updated list available.

“I heard that third-hand so it can be checked, but frankly, a lot of people here feel that any mailing from Washington, D.C., is probably manipulative, at the least.

“Think about it. This organization says it is targeting Latinos, African-Americans and so forth who are eligible to vote. Look around. Do you see many of those people here?”

The VPC spokesperson denied any “updated” list of unregistered voters was offered to the organization.

“VPC is not aware of any offer…to provide a more current voter registration list,” he said. “I would ask them for details because we have no record of that request (or of our rejecting the request).”

Attempts to reach someone at the Idaho Secretary of State’s office to clarify the situation were not successful.

Thus, the entire VPC direct-mail registration effort apparently ended as a stalemate in Kootenai County.

Per their wishes, the clerk’s office and election officials will not have to explain a second mailing from VPC.

On the other hand, VPC officials note some registration applications likely have come from the first mailing, and no matter what the county claims, it was their prior decision not to send a second mailing — and that they were not influenced by the clerk’s office or anyone else.

“As long as these people don’t bother us again, that’s fine,” Raffee said.

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